1 Who knocks at my heart?
"But I can walk," Iruka protested for the fifth time, trying to fend Sakura off as gently as he could, the kunoichi being convinced that not only did Iruka need a wheelchair, he also needed to be tucked in. With a fluffy, flannel, red blanket. With orange tassels. And brown flower print.
"You're our cover for the mainland, Iruka-sensei." Asuma managed to give the impression of smirking without actually smirking, smoking in a corner of Iruka's and Kakashi's Hidden Mist guestroom, next to the window. "So you'll have to look as recently recovered as possible, hmm?"
"I know that, but this surely I can do that without a wheelchair!"
"There's no need to be upset, Iruka-sensei," Sakura said placatingly.
"I'm not upset!"
Arms wrapped around him from behind, and he felt a warm cheek against his tightly bound hair. Iruka managed not to flinch. He had yet to get used to Kakashi's Kiba disguise, still: the illusion wasn't up at the moment, but Kakashi had brought no masks (that Iruka could find) on this mission. "Or I could carry you."
"What? Of course you can't. That'll look even more ridiculous than the wheelchair." Iruka fought the urge not to blush. Public displays of affection before former students made him uncomfortable, even if Sakura seemed more interested in making sure he couldn't squirm out of the blanket and Shino… Shino never looked concerned about anything. The chakra bug user was quietly finalizing their packing in a corner, save for Sakura's things (it seems that both genin had a long talk… at least on Sakura's side… about bugs and girls' clothing and irrational prejudices, but nothing could really be resolved).
"Then it has to be the wheelchair, hn?"
"Don't sound so logical! It's not logical!"
A hesitant voice cut in through the degenerating fracas (Kakashi attempting to nuzzle Iruka, Iruka attempting to fend off both Sakura's attempts to make him comfortable and Kakashi's growing boldness). Iruka turned his head, glad for the interruption, as Kakashi's hands stilled over his shoulders. A kunoichi stood at the doorway, her smile blindingly cheerful. Chrome orange hair was tied a little haphazardly into a tail by painfully bright pink ribbons, escaping strands pulled absently over her ears. She held a black notebook clutched to her chest, and a quill pen tucked behind an ear. Large silver-rimmed glasses sat precariously on a snub nose.
"Um. Hayase-san?" Sakura straightened, blinking in recognition.
"Ah, Sakura-san!" Hayase bowed sharply and deeply at the waist, reminding Iruka briefly of a dipping bird. "Una-sama has sent me to accompany all of you on your trip to the Mist mainland! Isn't this exciting?"
"Eeh…" Sakura stammered, and her quick, involuntary glance backwards at Kakashi and Iruka made him frown. "Er."
"I thought she couldn't spare any er, Mist ninja," Asuma pointed out from the window. "Because of the pirates."
"Ah! This is business, of course," Hayase bobbed her head again. "We have news that some of the Jyinyo may be crossing your ferry route. After that I have packages to deliver to Kaisa-sama at the Pale Court."
"Oh, in that case. Well. We are using Mist resources to get to the mainland." Asuma looked over at Kakashi, who nodded against Iruka's scalp. No one questioned Hayase's implied assertion that she was the only Mist ninja sent to settle the potential piracy problem as well as relay likely confidential packages: in his particular occupation, Iruka frequently encountered children of A-class potential.
"Excellent! I will relay your consent to Una-sama immediately! I look forward to accompanying all of you on your trip!"
The room felt a little emptier once the girl-shaped natural force of bottled chipper wandered off, and Iruka wondered why Sakura's grin was beginning to look stretched. "Sakura-chan? Is something wrong?"
"Wrong? No? I mean, no! Hayase-san is very capable, I am sure!" Sakura turned pink whenever she was lying or resorting to verbal subterfuge (It was once suggested by Ibiki that a chuunin teacher be included in the interrogation of any missing-nin, as said teachers tended to have a great memory bank for the little eccentricities that their ex-charges showed upon lying).
"She's B-A-C, isn't she." Kakashi drawled. It wasn't a question, and Sakura flushed more brightly even as Asuma arched an eyebrow.
"Just a group of nnpmh-"
Sakura laughed nervously, brittle and just this edge of hysterical, her palm clapped tight over Kakashi's mouth. "It's a Mist Kunoichi social group! They took me to ice cream and uh, dress shopping!"
"And what does it stand for?" One didn't need to be Sakura's teacher to know when she was trying to pull a fast one: Sakura didn't have the temperament needed. Asuma was smirking now, cigarette forgotten.
"Ano… er… Beautiful, er, Artistic Chicks!"
BAC… BAC… why did that sound famil-oh. Iruka flushed nearly the same pretty tomato hue as his former student, and felt Kakashi snicker above him, arms tightening over his shoulders.
Dear Diary (or so Iruka wrote in his head, as he was wheeled – damnit – out onto the dock before a waving procession headed by the very young and pretty Mizukage), I hate my life.
About a month ago I was diagnosed with a fatal and incurable version of the chakra illness Yume. I was spiritually prepared to die gracefully in Konoha surrounded by my friends and loved ones, but my partner was hysterical in front of the Hokage and insisted that-
"This is really unnecessary," Iruka muttered, clutching on tightly to the steel arms of the wheelchair as Kakashi pushed it up the gangway into the Mist ship. The ship was a scouting skipper, trim and sleek, and unassumingly and almost uniformly brown, including the sails. Irrationally, Iruka found it instantly depressing. "I can walk."
"Are we having this conversation again?" It had been about a couple of weeks since the 'cure', and Kakashi had stopped being a silent bundle of nerves that kept having to touch Iruka to make sure he was fine and returned to his normal slightly annoying self. Iruka welcomed the change. One of Kakashi's summons, Eishin, transformed at the moment into a spitting image of Akamaru, padded along beside them, bumping its nose occasionally against Iruka's wrist and wagging its tail.
-I be given the only form of treatment the Hokage could remember that would work, which was that I travel to Mist with an escort to seek the aid of a Mist healer ninja. There were two immediate problems that nobody else seemed to think were problems: 1, Mist was nearly at war with Leaf; 2, the healer's brother had been killed by my partner's father sometime in the past.
Unfortunately everybody had an instant bout of irrationality at the same time as Kakashi, and despite my protests a team was formed consisting of Kiba, Asuma, Shino and Sakura to escort me to Mist. Some distance out of Konoha I discovered that 'Kiba' was really Kakashi-
He was wheeled up to the prow, and felt Kakashi relax against the soft fabric back of the wheelchair. The sea was restless around them, clawing against the hull in whispery hisses, flecking the deck occasionally with foam, and behind him he could hear Asuma speaking indistinctly to the Mizukage. Shino and Sakura busied about helping Mist ninja load their luggage into the hold, and Hayase was speaking brightly to the captain about flying fish.
-and nobody agreed with me that the 'mission' had been compromised. Later on I realized that this was really a chuunin test for Sakura and Shino, and the possibility of complications with Kakashi going berserk if I were to die was part of their problem.
In any case I was cured in Mist, but in exchange, we're now to enter unknown, dangerous territory and conduct espionage in a hostile Court far away from home chasing will o' wisps.
I hate my life.
"Your face is like a storm cloud," Kakashi observed quietly above him. There was a thread of mirth in the drawl, which despite being spoken in Kiba's voice did not sound in the least like the sweet-natured Inuzuka boy.
"This is my first A-class mission," Iruka replied dryly, after managing to bury the spike of resentful irritation at being effectively dragged miles out of his comfort zone and into thornier and thornier tangles. He knew the stakes, of course: this was no longer about him, but about preventing war. That made thinking about the danger far easier. "Maybe I'm nervous."
Kakashi chuckled, over the noise of the deckhands preparing to sail, final farewells shouted over the rail by Hayase to the congregation. "What do you have to worry about? It's an espionage mission, and we have Shino-kun."
"You can't think it's that simple."
"Asuma and I have discussed matters," Kakashi said, his tone still unconcerned.
"I hope you're not feigning confidence for my sake."
"I can do other things for your sake, if you'll like," Kakashi's purr took Iruka by surprise, absorbed as the chuunin was in what ifs and why me.
"Ka…" Iruka managed to swallow the yelp into a hurried cough. Kakashi was pretending to be Kiba at the moment. Right. He lowered his voice quickly to a hiss, "There's you know on board."
"They've been around since we've arrived at Mist," Kakashi smirked. "And remember that yukata, and the balcony…"
"We're never going to do something so public ever again."
"Whining won't work either." Though the make-up sex afterwards had been pretty damned… no, wait. Iruka silently screamed at his brain for traitorously bringing up consequential images. He took a breath, suddenly thankful for the horrible blanket.
Ah yes. And did I mention Kakashi and I are currently being stalked by some kunoichi organization called BAC? Not to mention that they have taken several highly compromising and embarrassing photographs of … ahem. I swear, this generation's kunoichi, Konoha as well-
"Yes, sensei," Kakashi murmured, in that breathy tone beside his ear, and Iruka flushed instantly to the roots of his hair.
"Don't. You look like Kiba." Iruka muttered, though his body was all too aware it was illusion. This was the man who had knocked all unbidden (and rather by accident, Gai-induced) at his heart, during the midsummer, and he'd welcomed him, psychoses, past and all, without even knowing he had.
"It matters?" And there was something closed in Kakashi's tone, only partially joking.
"Kiba was my student," Iruka muttered, as a way of avoiding the question. "I've tutored him in math. I bought him ice-cream when he came to me crying because a girl he liked said Akamaru smelled like wet carpets. I've…"
"Mou, Iruka, I wasn't serious," Kakashi said, and Iruka reflected that when Kakashi was lying, his tone turned altogether too light, and he knew that if he looked up at this moment, Kakashi's eyes would be crinkled in reflexive appearances of mirth.
The wind was cold across his skin, peppering his shirt with wet salt, and all he saw was the deceptive expanse of open blue, blanketed by the pale mist characteristic to the region. They would reach the mainland in two days, depending on the wind, and the port of the capital, Sochen, in another. There was time. "Let's um, go to the rooms. It's cold."
"All right, Iruka-sensei." Kiba's tone again, closed and in character.
Iruka sighed, reaching behind him to wrap fingers gently over one of the warm hands closed over the wheelchair's handles. It had been two weeks, and he still felt sublimally surprised that his fingers didn't tremble. Kakashi was highly strung, and Iruka knew that an upset Kakashi tended to let matters fester into permanent wounds, bottled under the mask and a crinkling eye.
So he arched a little against the wheelchair, after checking carefully with his peripheral vision for observers, and ran his free hand slowly down his abdomen, to rest low on his belly. "And then I might need a little more… aid." Iruka hated using this husky tone: he always felt self-consciously silly afterwards, but he couldn't deny the effect it had on Kakashi.
There was a hint of a growl laced into the studiously offhanded reply, and Iruka's lip curled into a brief grin. "Always a pleasure to help, Iruka-sensei."
Sakura shot the deck one last helpless glance and scurried down below decks. Iruka-sensei would be able to make some sense out of this, at least! He was so rational, everybody would listen to him (all actual evidence to the contrary ignored). Besides, it was rather early in the day to be resting, and he needed fresh air, and what was happening on deck had to be worth interrupting rest for.
Rationality firmly on her side, she marched up to Iruka's cabin and knocked firmly on the door. "Iruka-sensei!"
There was a fumbling sound behind the door, then Iruka asked, cautiously, "Sakura-chan?"
Sakura frowned. Iruka's voice sounded a little odd, but she supposed it was likely sleep. "There's something very strange happening on deck that you should see, Iruka-sensei! Kakashi-sensei too."
"Um, now?" Iruka sounded strained. Surely he couldn't be that tired. Sakura hesitated for a moment. Could Iruka have been doing the… the… it… with Kakashi-sensei? But there were no strange sounds… er. Photographs in that book leaped back into her mind, as well as the unwilling new knowledge (from said book) that there were certainly more ways of doing the it than she had previously thought possible and not all of them necessarily involved sound, ahaha.
Post-traumatic memories pitched her voice a little higher. "Ano… unless you're busy right now-"
"Give me a few minutes, Sakura-chan, I'll meet you on deck." Iruka's voice sounded steadier.
Relieved, Sakura turned away, then blushed crimson when she heard a hissed, "No, we're not busy at the moment, Kakashi! St-stop that!"
Oh dear. Kakashi-sensei was going to kill her.
"I'm going to kill Sakura," Kakashi muttered, as he helped Iruka pull on a shirt.
Iruka hid his smirk. Kakashi looked adorable, with the illusion off and his silver hair in a tangle tousled by clutching fingers, muttering dark curses under his breath and attempting to fix up his own clothes. "It's probably important."
"It had better be life and death. Preferably hers."
"Kakashi." He couldn't hold on to the stern tone, feeling a snicker well up into his throat: he had been in the midst of reciprocating a favor conducted with Kakashi's very talented mouth with hands and tongue, and had managed to get the silver-haired ninja sweating, arching and pressing at the bed with the heels of his feet when the knock had sounded.
"Under that sweet, adorable exterior you're really evil," Kakashi moaned, obviously and unashamedly feeling sorry for himself.
"Iruka-san! Kiba san!" Hayase waved cheerfully when they finally got on deck, Iruka primly tucked into the wheelchair and 'Kiba' radiating enough killing intent that it was fairly obvious to anyone with the 'sight' that he was no genin. Sakura made a soft 'eep' and hid behind Asuma, who glanced at her, then at Kakashi, and smirked.
Hayase seemed absolutely unconcerned, jogging on the spot, eyes turning back to the horizon.
"Er… what's happening?" Iruka asked, when 'Kiba wheeled him up next to Asuma.
"Lookout spotted an incoming Jyinyo pirate ship," Asuma explained, evidently interested enough in proceedings that he wasn't even smoking. "We're waiting for 'range', so the Captain tells me."
"Range? To?" Iruka shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun, but couldn't make out a shape on the blue horizon. "The ship? I can't see anything."
Asuma shrugged. "Beats me. Sakura and I have been asking questions, but nobody's been forthcoming. But it should be interesting."
"Hayase-san!" the lookout called from the crow's nest. "Ranged!"
"Thank you, Ino-san!" Hayase pushed up her classes with one finger, and ran for the rail, vaulting up and pushing herself off the edge. To Iruka's surprise, instead of falling into the water, the kunoichi arrowed out over the waves in an eyeblink, then there was on the very edge of vision a sudden roar of sound and a burst of white froth, displaced water… then a distant explosion.
"Weigh anchor!" the Captain shouted, in the stunned silence. "We go retrieve Hayase-san!"
As the crew scurried about around them, Asuma was the first to recover, reaching into his pockets for a cigarette. "A kunoichi social group, you say?"
"Mou… I hate doing this over water," Hayase said, and sneezed again. The kunoichi was wrapped up in bathrobes, with a warm towel draped over her hair and her feet in a steaming basin. Bright orange hair drooped under the folds of the towel, and she had long given up the fight with her glasses, instead peering myopically at the other occupant of the room, said glasses placed carefully on the dresser.
Due to space constraints on the ship, Hayase was sharing a room with Sakura, the latter currently involved in rinsing out towels and keeping the water hot. "That was amazing though, Hayase-san."
"Ano… it was nothing, Sakura-san." Hayase said quickly, and sneezed again. "My bloodline limit converts any kinetic energy into speed, and once we surpass the sound barrier, we can wield the energy waves that creates. The other BAC also have bloodline limits. Mine can be, um, inconvenient, and I'm still trying to refine it."
"Bloodline limits?" Sakura blinked. "Isn't BAC um, just er…"
"Bishounen appreciation?" Hayase smiled, and looked down at her slowly wrinkling toes. "Ya, the most powerful Mist kunoichi of this generation, Una-sama's personal guard."
"But… you people…"
"I think it's just a way to keep us occupied." Hayase shrugged. "So we don't… well. Mist has a fairly high rate of ninja going missing."
"Why? Your village is lovely, and, well, I've met lots of nice people, and your Mizukage seems capable."
"It's not like Konoha here," Hayase pulled the bathrobe over her shoulders. "Mainland has been trying to dissolve Hidden Mist for a long time. Many pockets of mainland Mist citizens have been persuaded to fear ninja. I suppose many of us feel trapped."
"But if they fear ninja, then how do you get missions?" Sakura frowned. Much of the revenue of Hidden villages came from the normal citizenry of the country.
"We don't get very many. That's what Una-sama fears, that this is part of the Mainland's plan. First to make us too dependent on the government's contracts, and then finally to cede all control. We don't know why this is happening: the last Mizukage tried to infiltrate the Pale Court, but her agents were unsuccessful." Hayase's face lit up into one of her disturbingly bright smiles. "But I am sure all of you will be successful! We have heard much of the Leaf!"
"Ah… hahaha!" Sakura laughed nervously. She could feel a headache coming.